Monday, June 11, 2012

A leader's dilemma: Implementing When you Disagree

I believe one of the toughest leadership dilemmas outside of "people" issues has to do with how you implement a decision or policy or project when you personally disagree.  All leaders, especially those in large organizations, will eventually find themselves in the position of leading implementation when they don't agree. This occurs in all large organizations and is especially common in global companies when standardization is involved.  My blogs of 13,14,15,16, 20 and 21 March go into the standardization subject in some detail.  So what's a leader to do when faced with this challenge?
First of all, I believe it is the leader's duty to argue her point of view vigorously during the decision making process, even if it is the minority, especially if it's the minority view.  The senior decision maker needs the honest view of all concerned.  Many times the "right answer" isn't clear; often the decision is a 51%-49% close call that must be made.  If there is a business case behind the decision you need to be prepared to challenge the assumptions of the business case.  However, after all the arguments have been made and all the points of view expressed, sometimes the decision doesn't go your way.  What happens next is an important test of leadership skill.
I believe the leader has three different choices, two of which are honorable. One, and I see this all too often among early leadership practitioners, is to say "Well gang I did my best to argue our case but I lost.  I know it's a dumb idea but "those guys" up there say we have to do it anyway".  This approach undermines confidence in the entire leadership chain. It's purpose is to make the speaker look good and absolve everyone but the higher ups of any accountability for failure.  This is inappropriate leader behavior under any circumstance.
A second approach is to resign.  This is an extreme approach only appropriate when there are legal, ethical or integrity issues involved.  No leader is obligated to take illegal or unethical action and resignation is appropriate under these circumstances.  That said, resigning just because you disagree, leaves your staff in the position of implementing without your's going to happen anyway.  The leader who does this is walking away when their staff need them the most.  The true leader stays and helps the organization through a difficult challenge. 
That's really the third option.  Having voiced your disagreement, and assuming there are no ethical/legal issues,  when the decision doesn't go your way, implement as if it were your own decision, even if you disagree.  Sometimes this requires you to explain that all the arguments have been made and that those making the decision are aware of the consequences and risks.  Sometimes it's necessary to explain that some policies/projects benefit the organization as a whole, even though the benefit locally is a hard to articulate or doesn't exist at all.

Stated another way implementing policies/projects when you agree can be done by anyone appointed to a leadership role..  Implementing when you disagree differentiates "real" leaders" from those who have just been appointed to the position.

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